Monday, February 18, 2008

Who Owns the Organic Food Companies?

Did you know that many of your favorite organic foods are owned by some of the world's largest food producers?  Kashi is owned by Kellogg, Seeds of Change by M&M Mars, Health Valley, Arrowhead Mills, Earth's Best and 16 other brands are owned by Hain Celestial who have a strategic alliance with Heinz. 

I knew about a few but discovered the depth of the ownership when reading the March issue of Good magazine that included a chart entitled "Buying Organics" created by Phil Howard.  The piece diagrams 11 of the the top 30 food processors in the North America and their organic holdings.  My initial reaction to this chart was "wow" I did not know that Green & Black's organic chocolates were owned by Cadbury Schweppes.  Then I said to myself, what is Phil Howard trying to say here? So I did some research on him.

An assistant professor of Community, Agriculture and Recreation and Resource Studies at Michigan State University, Phil Howard, has been creating visual charts tracking buyouts in organic food industry since 2002 when USDA implemented the Organic Standards.  Comparing his 2002 chart to the most recent update in January 2008 (both showing  food processors and organic brand acquisitions, organic brand introductions and strategic alliances) the consolidation of the industry is scary.  He even created an animated version of the consolidation of the organic food industry from 1997 to 2007.  (Click here to view.)

In contrast to the chart in Good magazine, these charts do not need much explanation to the implication on the organic farming community.  A once tiny niche in the food industry, organic foods have become a more than $20 billion a year market.  As Howard states in his paper Consolidation of Food and Agriculture published in CCOF, "The trend (of consolidation) raises concerns about how this power (of ownership) is exercised, as most corporations are accountable to their shareholders, not to the communities in which they operate." "Consolidation in food and agriculture has many negative consequences for the majority of those who grown, harvest, process and eat food.  These include lowering incomes and purchasing power, limiting choices, harming humans, animals and ecosystems heath.  However the importance of food makes it likely that as more people become aware of these consequences, the power of the corporate agribusiness will be more effectively confronted."

The consolidation of the organic food industry has become big business sometimes indistinguishable from industrial agriculture.  But do not get me wrong, there is a lot of good that has come out of the organic movement.  The organic standards prohibit genetically engineered and irradiated ingredients, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers with sewage sludge. Animals are not allowed to ingest synthetic hormones or antibiotics.  And the more widely available, the lower the price for the consumer.

So what is Phil Howard saying? 

The consumer must be aware of how the organic industry is being consolidated and push our government and corporations for more stringent organic standards.  As he states, "As the industry evolves, we'll need to advocate the next level of criteria one way or another.  These must address concentration in the industry, where food comes from, how far it travels and by what means, packaging and waste, a living wage for farm workers, preserving farmland and keeping farmers on the land, and continuing to be the front line for sustainability."

More of Phil Howard's graphs and charts can be viewed on his web page on the Michigan State University site.

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